- The Harry Winrob Collection of Inuit Sculpture: Essays by Zebedee Nungak, Lorne Balshine, Harry Winrob, and Darlene Coward Wight
The Harry Winrob Collection of Inuit Sculpture, an exhibit catalogue published by the Winnipeg Art Gallery, chronicles the donation of 246 sculptures from Vancouver physician/collector, the late Harry Winrob. Designed by Frank Reimer with art photography by Ernest Mayer, the catalogue received this year's Manitoba Book Award for best illustrated publication.
Curated by Darlene Coward Wight, the exhibit includes 130 sculptures by 110 artists from twenty-five settlements across the Canadian Arctic. The art work is presented in six thematic categories: Angakkuit / Inuit Shamans; Unikkaatuat / Inuit Stories; Isumaminitait / Inspired Imaginings; Niaquit / Heads; Inuusirminitait / Life Experiences; and Uumajuit / Animals. Although the broad representation of artists and communities provides the viewer with an expansive survey of Inuit sculpture, few artists are represented by more than a single sculpture. Given the exceptional quality of solo works by Lukie Airut (Igloolik), Napachie Ashoona (Cape Dorset), Agnes Nulluq Iqqugaqtuq (Kugaaruk), Simeonie Elijassiapik (Inukjuak), and Looty Pijamini (Grise Fiord), among others, this is unfortunate.
Cultural historian Zebedee Nungak (Puvirnituq) provides the historical framework for the exhibit. Describing the introduction of carving in [End Page 464] Nunavik (Northern Quebec) in the 1950s, Nungak writes, 'Having never known anything else, Inuit artists tapped into what they were wholly knowledgeable about: their unikkaatuat (legends), their unikkaat (historical accounts), their inuusirminitait (life experiences), and their isumaminitait (inspired imaginations).' Nungak's essay is a thoughtful reflection on the transition from the first to second generation of artists, and the effect of historical change on the collective experience of Inuit.
As indicated by Wight, the Winrob collection fills a temporal gap in the Gallery's own Inuit collection with its exceptional strength in the sculpture of the 1950s and 1960s. Acquired mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, the Winrob collection was produced during a time of radical change in northern life. Families had settled into established communities and household expenses were mounting. Settlements, often located on the coast for ease of shipping supplies, were distant from hunting areas, and cash was required to purchase imported food, clothing, and modern hunting equipment. With few employment options, many Inuit turned to carving as a means of supporting their families.
This contemporary period was one of increasing self-awareness of artists. The commercial success of certain artists was not lost on fellow residents, and the local influence of individual artists or artistic styles often motivated others in the region. As Inuit art became more widely recognized in Canada and internationally, opportunities for commercial sales, gallery exhibitions, and travel increased.
The economic dependence on carving demanded a persistent search for subject matter. As Wight notes, 'Winrob was fascinated by sculpture with shamanic content, and particularly the animal/human transformations undertaken by the Inuit shaman.' Judging from the numerous sculptures in this category, artists, too, were intrigued by the qablunaat interest in this genre. Bird Shaman (2002) by Napachie Ashoona (Cape Dorset), for example, masterfully renders the moment of transition as the shaman transcends his human form.
Other sculptures, however, seem somewhat ill-fitted to this category. As Wight describes, 'It was not the "classic" but the atypical, even the bizarre that held a strong attraction for [Dr. Winrob].' Such a keen observation may indicate the need for an additional subject category - that of caricature. Various works in the exhibit suggest the artist's playful use of material, technique, and expression. Indeed, some sculptors seem quite determined not to take their art (or themselves) too seriously. How else to explain the Dancing Muskox by Pitsiula Qimirpik, a Jim Henson-type character (Ms Piggy comes to mind) balanced on one cloven foot, prancing in a shaggy qiviut robe with 'arms' outstretched?
Humour has been, and remains, a vital and highly valued element of Inuit social life. As a physician dedicated to the most serious of professions, Harry Winrob enriched his own life, and that of others, with [End Page 465] an unrestrained...